In Praise of Herta Müller

Posted October 13, 2009 on 12:48 am | In the category Europe, Free Speech, Germany | by Mackenzie Brothers

Since the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was met with virtual ignorance and stunning disinterest in North America, my brother and I have decided to break the silence. The prize went to Herta Müller, whom we first met in 1985 in our native München when she was allowed out of her native Romania for the first time. The reason seemed clear enough. Though she was unable to work as a teacher in Romania as a totalitarian government clamped down and imprisoned writers it didn’t like – including her then husband Richard Wagner, an equally talented and prolific German-language author from Romania – she had won one of the most prestigious prizes for young writers in Germany, and for a work first published in Bucharest, Niederungen (Lowlands, translated into English as Nadirs). It seemed that she was profiting from a tendency of the Caucescu government to overlook weaknesses in its citizens if they won accolades in the big world, just as it would when Romania became the only Soviet-dominated country to not boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. Herta Müller was reminding the world that Romania was a country that produced great artists, architects and writers, even if this one wrote in the wrong language. And Niederungen was more of an attack on the German world of Romania than it was on Romania itself.
So it seemed to us as we talked with this young and nervous visitor to Germany. Three years later she had left Timisoara for Berlin, where she still lives, and for the next twenty years she has published something like a roadmap of dead ends and dangerous detours that was the fate of the Romanian-Germans as they tried to get out of a country that did not have a bloodless revolution as the Communist world collapsed, but a violent one whose repercussions still linger. And yet for the next 25 years she did not tell the darkest story of the brutality she and the Romanian-Germans confronted under Caucescu and his predecessors, as it would have affected the lives of too many friends and colleagues. Now she has told it and the Swedish Academy got it right when they wrote of her searing focus on the rootlessness and dislocation that is the fate of so much of European and for that matter world populations today. There is no doubt that she has personally been scarred by it, and there is also no doubt that she is a worthy recipient of literature’s highest prize as she has written stories that make it clear how that happened and what it means.

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